Managing Risks in the Mountains

Adventuring in the outdoors requires almost constant risk management skills, and I’ve spent decades creating systems and structures to do so.  Today I want to talk about these systems and how I use them in the mountains. 


I was recently on a trip to Colorado where I went to climb a 14’er by myself.  On my way down, a horrified hiker appeared, commenting that I shouldn’t have hiked in the dark, by myself, when there are mountain lions.  It caught me off guard; I was being questioned about my risk management.  And, of course, when you have weird interactions with people, you always think of all the right things to say later.

I started guiding in 2002.  I currently work teaching wilderness medical courses where I teach people how to structure and think about risk.  I work for the US Antarctic Program doing field safety, including work on the sea ice, and this year I  will provide safety for a team traversing overland to the South Pole.  Basically, I live and breathe risk management in high-consequence situations. So below is the dialogue I wished I could have had.


It’s super important to create systems and structures around risk


Without a structure and way to evaluate risk, we are all subject to reacting emotionally rather than responding with intent and clarity. 


One of the things that I think is super important about how we think about risk is Probability VS Consequence. Basically, what’s the % chance that something will go wrong?  What is the consequence of it going wrong?  What do we suffer as an outcome?


The easy categories are the extremes: High Probability-High Consequence and Low Probability-Low Consequence  


For example, it is a low probability on a cement path that happens in our National Parks that I’m going to roll an ankle.  It’s a completely smooth path.  Also, the consequences are very low.   It’s not life-threatening.  I’m likely around other people and resources to get me out to help. 

On the other end of that spectrum are the obvious bad things.  Take a waterfall edge in one of our national parks: we don’t go all the way to the edge of the waterfall, step into the moving water, and try to balance.  We can see that being swept away and falling hundreds of feet is a very high consequence-high probability action.


Low Probability-Low Consequence: We don’t need to think about them much
High Probability-High Consequence: We can easily see and have a deep desire to avoid


When we really think about high-consequence actions, we’re thinking about obvious deaths, but also significant trauma or harm for ourselves. High probability-high consequence actions tend to be simple for us to perceive and avoid; it’s just human nature for self-preservation.


The Complex Categories:  High Probability-Low Consequence and Low Probability-High Consequence 


When you have something that is a high probability but a low consequence, we don’t always take a lot of care to deal with it, and sometimes that bites us in the butt.  A great example of this is blisters: we know the chance is quite high, so why don’t we make the extra effort to prevent them?  While a blister isn’t going to kill us and isn’t an emergency it sure can put a damper on a fun trip or hike. 

High Probability-Low Consequence: Consider being proactive. 


The scariest category is something that is a low probability but does have a high consequence.  Back to the waterfall example: you decided to cross the barricade to get a better photo closer to the waterfall.  You’re not standing in the raging water, but you are still moving closer to it and the consequence is still high.  The probability is low, but how low?  What are the chances on flat ground you’re going to fall?  What about on angling granite rock you could slip?  How about if the rock is water polished? What if it’s slightly damp from the mist?  The probability could be more than you are assuming, and you’ve moved into a zone where you have a real potential to fall.  The barricade is there to create a barrier so that there is no chance of falling over the edge, but you’ve removed that barrier.  


This category is so dangerous because it is very easy to overlook or dismiss dealing with the risk because we don’t perceive it as a possibility. 

Low Probability-High Risk: Often a decision-making trap

Avoid Making this Mistake


To avoid this, I teach a trick in wilderness medical courses to identify traps in my thinking when guiding or adventuring.  I’m constantly evaluating situations for consequences that are not acceptable. That way, when I encounter unacceptable consequences, I have options.  I can avoid it completely or mitigate the outcome to be more acceptable.  People do this all the time when they choose to add a rope or a backup in a climbing system where the consequences of falling would be otherwise unacceptable. 


Unacceptable Consequence: Avoid It or Mitigate It 

draws on a route

Back to Mountain Lions


The consequence of a mountain lion attack sounds bad, but the probability is hard to calculate.  The risk is incredibly low (in-fact a google search says “infinitely small. You are more likely to drown in your bathtub, be killed by a pet dog, or hit by lightning”). Especially If I am hiking where there is lots of open space and lots of wild game.  In other words, the animal is well fed, and thus, there is no pressure to attack something that they don’t usually eat.  


In the case of my hike in Colorado- the thunderstorm chance was 80%. It had rained the night before till 10 pm and flash flooded earlier that day. There was a high probability of thunderstorms, and the consequence was high.  No one wants to be exposed at 14,000 feet in torrential rain and lightning.  Not to mention the flash flooding that makes creek crossings impossible and retreat difficult.

So, between the two risks, I chose to prioritize my mitigation for the high probability-high consequence.  There was always a chance I could have been attacked by a mountain lion.  But the storm was pretty much inevitable and my only way to gain a higher margin of safety was to start early, by headlamp.  In a more ideal world, I would have also had a hiking partner to decrease the risk of a mountain lion attack further, but I didn’t.  There isn’t an exact right or wrong answer here, but I do think it’s important to have a clear understanding of the risk in order to make well-informed decisions. 


You can check out my more detailed dialogue at the video below. 



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